This 2016 Closing the Gap report shows, as in previous years, that there have been mixed levels of success in meeting the targets set by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2008. It underscores the need for all Australian governments to intensify their efforts and partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and all Australians to effect change.
The results outlined in this report reiterate that while these targets may be ambitious, striving to meet them is essential in building a robust and healthy Australia. The targets focus on the areas of health, education and employment, which are recognised as the key drivers for success in addressing the significant disparity in the health, wellbeing and prosperity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
The targets and their impacts cannot be considered independently – they are intrinsically interlinked. Improvements in one area can positively impact another. For example, providing children with a healthy start to life will give them the best chance of academic success which will, in turn, have positive flow-on effects for employment opportunities.
The report shows that, while progress against a number of the targets has been limited, the actions taken over recent years are making a difference. The data summarised in this report provides valuable insight into where the need is greater and what strategies are most effective.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up three per cent of Australia’s population with almost 80 per cent living in regional and metropolitan areas. The locations with the largest Indigenous populations are in the cities and regional centres closest to coastal areas. While only 14 per cent of Indigenous Australians live in very remote areas, they make up a large proportion (45 per cent) of Australians living in these areas. The proportion of the Indigenous population who live in remote and very remote areas is projected to fall from 21.3 per cent in 2011 to 17.5 per cent in 2026.
As well as differences in where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live, there is great diversity in cultures, language, experience and circumstances. Inherent in this diversity, is a strong connection to country and culture.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is quite young compared to the general population. In 2011, 36 per cent of Indigenous Australians were aged 0-14 years compared to 18 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians. However, the Indigenous population is getting older and by 2026 the proportion of the Indigenous population aged over 65 is projected to almost double from the proportion in 2011 (from 3.4 per cent in 2011 to 6.4 per cent in 2026).
Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in education, employment and safety vary by remoteness. For example, in 2015, Indigenous Year 5 students in metropolitan areas were, on average, twice as likely to meet national minimum standards in reading as Indigenous students in very remote areas.
PROGRESS AGAINST THE TARGETS
There have been some tangible successes and continuing improvement in many of the areas critical to addressing inequality. While long-term improvements are evident, it is important to note that overall progress has been varied and that meeting many of the Closing the Gap targets remains a significant challenge. State and territory governments will continue to have a critical role in making progress against the targets.
The target to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018 is on track. Over the longer term, Indigenous child death rates declined by 33 per cent and the gap narrowed (by 34 per cent) between 1998 and 2014. Immunisation rates for Indigenous children are high – by the age of five a higher percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are immunised compared with other Australian children. While total Indigenous mortality rates have declined over the longer term, particularly from circulatory diseases (such as heart disease and stroke) the target to close the gap in life expectancy is not on track, based on data since the 2006 baseline.
In remote areas, 85 per cent of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander four-year-olds were enrolled in preschool in 2013. In December 2015, COAG renewed the early childhood education target, aiming for 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education by 2025. The baseline data for this new target will be available in March 2016.
The latest data shows mixed progress on the target to halve the gap in reading and numeracy for Indigenous students by 2018. Across the eight areas (reading and numeracy for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9), the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieving national minimum standards is on track in four of these eight areas.
In May 2014, COAG agreed to a new target to close the gap in school attendance by the end of 2018. In 2015, the attendance rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students was 83.7 per cent, little change from the rate in 2014 (83.5 per cent). Progress will need to accelerate for this target to be met.
An increasing proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are completing Year 12, up from 45.4 per cent in 2008 to 58.5 per cent in 2012-13. This means the target to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment by 2020 is on track. Over the past decade there was a 70 per cent increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in higher education award courses. There is almost no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous university graduates.
The target to halve the gap in employment by 2018 is not on track. Factors such as economic growth, strong Indigenous businesses and gains in Indigenous education will have an impact on the results.
HOW IS THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT RESPONDING?
It is a shared responsibility of all governments to partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in order to meet the Closing the Gap targets. COAG has identified Indigenous affairs as a key priority on its agenda and governments are working together to pursue national reforms that will expand opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their communities.
In 2015, the Australian Government transformed the way Indigenous programmes are funded through the implementation of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. The Strategy consolidates policies and programmes into five overarching themes: Jobs, Land and Economy; Children and Schooling; Safety and Wellbeing; Culture and Capability; and Remote Australia Strategies. These changes have enabled greater flexibility and responsiveness in programme delivery, to better meet the aspirations and priorities of individual communities.
Ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have a positive start to life will strengthen their opportunities later in life. The Government’s Better Start to Life approach is expanding established maternal and child health programmes aimed at improving prenatal, postnatal and child health and parenting. Indigenous parenting and playgroup services are helping to build parent-child relationships, develop parent and carer capacity, and provide support to vulnerable children and families, so young children have the opportunities to develop skills in the important years before formal schooling. The focus on early childhood health complements the ongoing investment in chronic disease prevention and management, both essential elements to close the gap in life expectancy. The Government is also continuing its strong support for Aboriginal community controlled health organisations as critical providers of effective primary health care to Indigenous Australians.
Early childhood and school education will continue to be prioritised across governments, both of which are critical for increasing opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children later in life. Communities are being supported to identify and address barriers to school attendance through the Remote School Attendance Strategy, resulting in more children regularly attending school in remote Indigenous communities. And beyond school attendance, there are strategies to improve school attainment outcomes, which will lead to increased employment opportunities.
Under the new Community Development Programme job seekers in remote Australia are contributing to their communities and gaining valuable work skills. There has been a promising increase in the number of remote Indigenous job seekers on Newstart now engaged in work-related activities. The Australian Government will continue to establish economic development opportunities for Indigenous businesses and native title holders. Recent amendments to the Government’s procurement policy have encouraged government departments to increase their use of Indigenous businesses in their supply chain. This new approach has resulted in new contracts with Indigenous businesses conservatively valued at around $36 million between July and December 2015. Meanwhile, opportunities for Indigenous land owners and native title holders to leverage their land assets for economic development will be explored, in line with the recommendations of the COAG investigation into Indigenous land administration and use.
All governments are working together to reduce substance abuse and harm, prevent crime, reduce violence and support victims – particularly women and children. The Australian Government’s $100 million Women’s Safety Package includes $21 million to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
This report highlights the interrelated elements that impact the cultural, physical and social wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. It provides valuable insight into where progress is being made, what is and isn’t working and where a more concerted effort is needed.
Meeting all the Closing the Gap targets will be challenging, and will take a national commitment and resolve across Indigenous-specific and mainstream programmes. Responsive and innovative solutions are essential to address the current disparity and build a promising future. This will be achieved through true partnership between governments, businesses and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.